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Unflinchingly French

Richmond's newest French restaurant has weathered ani-French sentiment.

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“We’re about food, not politics,” explains Morgan, a criminal-defense lawyer and unabashed Francophile who spends a couple of months each year on the French Caribbean island of St. Barth’s, and is a frequent traveler to Paris and the French countryside.

The menu is compact — half a dozen entrees, half a dozen appetizers, four salads and a sandwich, plus a couple of nightly specials — but that is enough when the selections are broadly appealing.

This is not a place you want to skimp on the appetizers. You might think of them as French tapas and make a meal of them.

A good place to start is with the pomme frites ($4), which are not to be confused with fast-food fries. Hold the ketchup — these are hand-cut, deep-fried potatoes sprinkled with fresh herbs and served with a roasted garlic mayonnaise.

The seared sea scallops, or Coquilles St. Jacques ($12), come over a garlic purée, with Parisian potatoes (with little scoop holes) and a warm salad of baby arugula. The secret with scallops is knowing when to pull them from the pan, and my order was a bit undercooked, but still quite good.

A good sign that the escargot en croute ($12) is prepared with fresh snails is that it was not available on my first visit. My patience was rewarded the second time when half a dozen sautéed snails, smothered in garlic, butter and herbs, arrived snuggled in an oversized puff pastry.

The country-style duck pté ($8), with sweet pickles, mustard seed and tarragon aioli, had an innovative touch of julienne apples.

We were lucky enough to try a special fois gras ($12), in which the duck liver is rolled up like a towel, poached in its own fat and sweetened with Bing cherries.

The regular entrees, from $14 to $21, are baked chicken, beef, steamed mussels, steamed vegetables in consommé, tuna and bouillabaisse.

Four thick slices of tuna ($19) were quick-seared to medium-rare perfection and stacked atop a mound of steamed greens and a round flat cake of potatoes, called a galette.

The bouillabaisse ($19), or fish soup, contained mussels, clams, tuna and scallops, swimming in a warm saffron broth with bites of potatoes, onions, tomato, parsley and a crusty bread. Because the contents change frequently, ask the waiter for that night’s ingredients, lest you wind up, as we did, without the advertised shrimp and salmon, and overwhelmed with scallops and tuna.

The desserts ($6) also are classic French: chocolate terrine, crÅ me brulee, crepes Suzette and torte Tatin. The delicate crepes, in an orange-butter sauce, were doused in Grand Mariner but not flaming, and the torte was an upside-down apple pie with a caramel topping.

The small staff was assembled by Morgan’s girlfriend, Lynn Lines, who is the hostess. Chef John Bullen came from Havana ’59, City Bar and Chop House and O’Brienstein’s, and Chef David Moore via Europa and the Fox Head Inn. The waiter, Gerard “from Dijon,” had been a fixture at La Petite France and LeMaire.

As with many new places, there are some kinks to be worked out, and a couple of them are easily fixed — the chefs should at least start the night with clean aprons, and the fresh flowers could be replaced before they wilt.

Because Morgan’s has only 40 seats, most of which are in high-backed wooden booths on either side of a bar, it has no designated nonsmoking section, which, in a way, adds to its authenticity, as do the unisex restrooms in the basement. S



Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for The Washington Post in ’99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d’ and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. He last reviewed restaurants for Style in the late ’80s.



Morgan’s ($$$)

304 N. Robinson St.

359-9155

Dinner daily 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

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